x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Design success you can put your shirt on

Across the country, a new wave of creative retailers are stitching up a lucrative market.

New designers are turning to the simple T-shirt to bring a bit of Gulf culture to mainstream fashion in the UAE. From the image of bright green eyes framed by the traditional burqa to the retort "No cash? No oil? Who cares! Dubai loves you", the T-shirt is becoming a popular canvas for local designers to highlight the region.

"The Khaleeji culture, that of the Gulf region, is kind of lost within this whole diversity," said Sheikha Manar Al Hinai, an Omani national, who launched her brand Lucky Nooni in April. "Ten years ago, you would see women wearing the burqa. You barely see them now. So I'm trying to let this new generation now be in touch with their culture, with their region." Tamara al Gabbani, who co-launched the Dubai-based T-shirt brand House of GlaMO in December, said young designers based in the Emirates in recent years were increasingly combining local heritage themes with fashion. "Now, you're seeing that on T-shirts and entire fashion lines with that Arabic influence," she said. "The local heritage and the influence on these modern fashion items."

And there is money to be made with these simple fashion pieces. The price of designer shirts from both House of GlaMO and Lucky Nooni start at about Dh250 (US$68.06). These two fashion brands enter the retail market as it recovers from the global economic downturn. Retailers struggled last year as consumers reduced spending. To lure hesitant shoppers, many of the big luxury brands and department stores cut prices, making it harder for smaller designers to compete. There are few statistics on the local fashion industry, but consumer spending on garments, clothing and accessories in the UAE was about $4.8bn last year, the research consultancy Euromonitor International says. Clothing and accessories sales are forecast to grow by a modest 2.7 per cent to $5bn this year, Euromonitor data show.

But these new brands are hoping to stand out from the crowd with their culture-infused designs. Sheikha Manar's brand, whose other hand-made designs include images of the popular Middle Eastern singer Umm Kulthum, is mainly sold online but has attracted customers from the other side of the globe. "I had customers from Louisiana, USA," said the Abu-Dhabi based designer. "I was really shocked." House of GlaMO's designs have featured more recent Gulf cultural phenomena. One of its shirts is emblazoned with the slogan "Leave Lamees Alone", the phrase that became a response to the backlash against comments made by the Emirati wife and mother, Lamees Hamdan, who appeared on the US television chat show Oprahlast year.

Those T-shirts sold out among customers not just from the UAE but from Europe and the US as well, the half-Arab, half-Serbian designer said. "We have had an international demand, very surprisingly so," she said. "People from Texas, Greece, places that we have no advertising. I don't even know how they've heard about us, but they have been ordering our T-shirts online. I guess that's the power of the internet."

The Web has been a key tool in helping these designers flourish. As more consumers become comfortable shopping on the internet, it helps these new designers avoid the costs involved in a bricks-and-mortar store. And for Sheikha Manar, one of the main ways of driving business to her online boutique is through social media sites such as Facebook, e-mails and BlackBerry Messenger services. "That [approach] proved to be very successful," she said.

Also, as far as fashion goes, the T-shirt is a universal item, added Ms al Gabbani. "They're not extortionate and they are accessible to the public ? T-shirts are the easiest fashion items to purchase. Trousers or jeans have to be the right fit. A T-shirt pretty much fits everyone." @Email:aligaya@thenational.ae